Chapter XXXIV. Of the Coming of Solomon Sprent
The church of Gommatch was a small ivy-clad building with a square Norman tower, standing in the centre of the hamlet of that name. Its great oaken doors, studded with iron, and high narrow windows, fitted it well for the use to which it was now turned. Two companies of Dumbarton's Foot had been quartered in the village, with a portly Major at their head, to whom I was handed over by Sergeant Gredder, with some account of my capture, and of the reasons which had prevented my summary execution.
Night was now drawing in, but a few dim lamps, hung here and there upon the walls, cast an uncertain, flickering light over the scene. A hundred or more prisoners were scattered about upon the stone floor, many of them wounded, and some evidently dying. The hale had gathered in silent, subdued groups round their stricken friends, and were doing what they could to lessen their sufferings. Some had even removed the greater part of their clothing in order to furnish head-rests and pallets for the wounded. Here and there in the shadows dark kneeling figures might be seen, and the measured sound of their prayers rang through the aisles, with a groan now and again, or a choking gasp as some poor sufferer battled for breath. The dim, yellow light streaming over the earnest pain-drawn faces, and the tattered mud-coloured figures, would have made it a fitting study for any of those Low Country painters whose pictures I saw long afterwards at The Hague.
On Thursday morning, the third day after the battle, we were all conveyed into Bridgewater, where we were confined for the remainder of the week in St. Mary's Church, the very one from the tower of which Monmouth and his commanders had inspected Feversham's position. The more we heard of the fight from the soldiers and others, the more clear it became that, but for the most unfortunate accidents, there was every chance that our night attack might have succeeded. There was scarcely a fault which a General could commit which Feversham had not been guilty of. He had thought too lightly of his enemy, and left his camp entirely open to a surprise. When the firing broke out he sprang from his couch, but failing to find his wig, he had groped about his tent while the battle was being decided, and only came out when it was well-nigh over. All were agreed that had it not been for the chance of the Bussex Rhine having been overlooked by our guides and scouts, we should have been among the tents before the men could have been called to arms. Only this and the fiery energy of John Churchill, the second in command, afterwards better known under a higher name, both to French and to English history, prevented the Royal army from meeting with a reverse which might have altered the result of the campaign.(Note K, Appendix.) Should ye hear or read, then, my dear children, that Monmouth's rising was easily put down, or that it was hopeless from the first, remember that I, who was concerned in it, say confidently that it really trembled in the balance, and that this handful of resolute peasants with their pikes and their scythes were within an ace of altering the whole course of English history. The ferocity of the Privy Council, after the rebellion was quelled, arose from their knowledge of how very close it had been to success.
I do not wish to say too much of the cruelty and barbarity of the victors, for it is not good for your childish ears to hear of such doings. The sluggard Feversham and the brutal Kirke have earned themselves a name in the West, which is second only to that of the arch villain who came after them. As for their victims, when they had hanged and quartered and done their wicked worst upon them, at least they left their names in their own little villages, to be treasured up and handed from generation to generation, as brave men and true who had died for a noble cause. Go now to Milverton, or to Wiveliscombe, or to Minehead, or to Colyford, or to any village through the whole breadth and length of Somersetshire, and you will find that they have not forgotten what they proudly call their martyrs. But where now is Kirke and where is Feversham? Their names are preserved, it is true, but preserved in a county's hatred. Who can fail to see now that these men in punishing others brought a far heavier punishment upon themselves? Their sin hath indeed found them out.
They did all that wicked and callous-hearted men could do, knowing well that such deeds were acceptable to the cold-blooded, bigoted hypocrite who sat upon the throne. They worked to win his favour, and they won it. Men were hanged and cut down and hanged again. Every cross-road in the country was ghastly with gibbets. There was not an insult or a contumely which might make the pangs of death more unendurable, which was not heaped upon these long-suffering men; yet it is proudly recounted in their native shire that of all the host of victims there was not one who did not meet his end with a firm lip, protesting that if the thing were to do again he was ready to do it.
At the end of a week or two news came of the fugitives. Monmouth, it seems, had been captured by Portman's yellow coats when trying to make his way to the New Forest, whence he hoped to escape to the Continent. He was dragged, gaunt, unshaven, and trembling, out of a bean-field in which he had taken refuge, and was carried to Ringwood, in Hampshire. Strange rumours reached us concerning his behaviour—rumours which came to our ears through the coarse jests of our guards. Some said that he had gone on his knees to the yokels who had seized him. Others that he had written to the King offering to do anything, even to throw over the Protestant cause, to save his head from the scaffold.(Note L, Appendix.) We laughed at these stories at the time, and set them down as inventions of our enemies. It seemed too impossible that at a time when his supporters were so sternly and so loyally standing true to him, he, their leader, with the eyes of all men upon him, should be showing less courage than every little drummer-boy displays, who trips along at the head of his regiment upon the field of battle. Alas! time showed that the stories were indeed true, and that there was no depth of infamy to which this unhappy man would not descend, in the hope of prolonging for a few years that existence which had proved a curse to so many who trusted him.
Of Saxon no news had come, good or bad, which encouraged me to hope that he had found a hiding-place for himself. Reuben was still confined to his couch by his wound, and was under the care and protection of Major Ogilvy. The good gentleman came to see me more than once, and endeavoured to add to my comfort, until I made him understand that it pained me to find myself upon a different footing to the brave fellows with whom I had shared the perils of the campaign. One great favour he did me in writing to my father, and informing him that I was well and in no pressing danger. In reply to this letter I had a stout Christian answer from the old man, bidding me to be of good courage, and quoting largely from a sermon on patience by the Reverend Josiah Seaton of Petersfield. My mother, he said, was in deep distress at my position, but was held up by her confidence in the decrees of Providence. He enclosed a draft for Major Ogilvy, commissioning him to use it in whatever way I should suggest. This money, together with the small hoard which my mother had sewed into my collar, proved to be invaluable, for when the gaol fever broke out amongst us I was able to get fitting food for the sick, and also to pay for the services of physicians, so that the disease was stamped out ere it had time to spread.
Early in August we were brought from Bridgewater to Taunton, where we were thrown with hundreds of others into the same wool storehouse where our regiment had been quartered in the early days of the campaign. We gained little by the change, save that we found that our new guards were somewhat more satiated with cruelty than our old ones, and were therefore less exacting upon their prisoners. Not only were friends allowed in occasionally to see us, but books and papers could be obtained by the aid of a small present to the sergeant on duty. We were able, therefore, to spend our time with some degree of comfort during the month or more which passed before our trial.
One evening I was standing listlessly with my back against the wall, looking up at a thin slit of blue sky which showed itself through the narrow window, and fancying myself back in the meadows of Havant once more, when a voice fell upon my ear which did, indeed, recall me to my Hampshire home. Those deep, husky tones, rising at times into an angry roar, could belong to none other than my old friend the seaman. I approached the door from which the uproar came, and all doubt vanished as I listened to the conversation.
'Won't let me pass, won't ye?' he was shouting. 'Let me tell you I've held on my course when better men than you have asked me to veil topsails. I tell you I have the admiral's permit, and I won't clew up for a bit of a red-painted cock-boat; so move from athwart my hawse, or I may chance to run you down.'
'We don't know nothing about admirals here,' said the sergeant of the guard. 'The time for seeing prisoners is over for the day, and if you do not take your ill-favoured body out of this I may try the weight o' my halberd on your back.'
'I have taken blows and given them ere you were ever thought of, you land-swab,' roared old Solomon. 'I was yardarm and yardarm with De Ruyter when you were learning to suck milk; but, old as I am, I would have you know that I am not condemned yet, and that I am fit to exchange broadsides with any lobster-tailed piccaroon that ever was triced up to a triangle and had the King's diamonds cut in his back. If I tack back to Major Ogilvy and signal him the way that I have been welcomed, he'll make your hide redder than ever your coat was.'
'Major Ogilvy!' exclaimed the sergeant, in a more respectful voice. 'If you had said that your permit was from Major Ogilvy it would have been another thing, but you did rave of admirals and commodores, and God knows what other outlandish talk!'
'Shame on your parents that they should have reared you with so slight a knowledge o' the King's English!' grumbled Solomon. 'In truth, friend, it is a marvel to me why sailor men should be able to show a lead to those on shore in the matter of lingo. For out of seven hundred men in the ship Worcester—the same that sank in the Bay of Funchal—there was not so much as a powder-boy but could understand every word that I said, whereas on shore there is many a great jolterhead, like thyself, who might be a Portugee for all the English that he knows, and who stares at me like a pig in a hurricane if I do lint ask him what he makes the reckoning, or how many bells have gone.'
'Whom is it that you would see?' asked the sergeant gruffly. 'You have a most infernally long tongue.'
'Aye, and a rough one, too, when I have fools to deal with,' returned the seaman. 'If I had you in my watch, lad, for a three years' cruise, I would make a man of you yet.'
'Pass the old man through!' cried the sergeant furiously, and the sailor came stumping in, with his bronzed face all screwed up and twisted, partly with amusement at his victory over the sergeant, and partly from a great chunk of tobacco which he was wont to stow within his cheek. Having glanced round without perceiving me, he put his hands to his mouth and bellowed out my name, with a string of 'Ahoys!' which rang through the building.
'Here I am, Solomon,' said I, touching him on the shoulder.
'God bless you, lad! God bless you!' he cried, wringing my hand. 'I could not see you, for my port eye is as foggy as the Newfoundland banks, and has been ever since Long Sue Williams of the Point hove a quart pot at it in the Tiger inn nigh thirty year agone. How are you? All sound, alow and aloft?'
'As well as might be,' I answered. 'I have little to complain of.'
'None of your standing rigging shot away!' said he. 'No spars crippled? No shots between wind and water, eh? You have not been hulled, nor raked, nor laid aboard of?'
'None of these things,' said I, laughing.
'Faith! you are leaner than of old, and have aged ten years in two months. You did go forth as smart and trim a fighting ship as over answered helm, and now you are like the same ship when the battle and the storm have taken the gloss from her sides and torn the love-pennants from her peak. Yet am I right glad to see you sound in wind and limb.'
'I have looked upon sights,' said I, 'which might well add ten years to a man's age.'
'Aye, aye!' he answered, with a hollow groan, shaking his head from side to side. 'It is a most accursed affair. Yet, bad as the tempest is, the calm will ever come afterwards if you will but ride it out with your anchor placed deep in Providence. Ah, lad, that is good holding ground! But if I know you aright, your grief is more for these poor wretches around you than for yourself.'
'It is, indeed, a sore sight to see them suffer so patiently and uncomplainingly,' I answered, 'and for such a man, too!'
'Aye, the chicken-livered swab!' growled the seaman, grinding his teeth.
'How are my mother and my father,' I asked, 'and how came you so far from home?'
'Nay, I should have grounded on my beef bones had I waited longer at my moorings. I cut my cable, therefore, and, making a northerly tack as far as Salisbury, I run down with a fair wind. Thy father hath set his face hard, and goes about his work as usual, though much troubled by the Justices, who have twice had him up to Winchester for examination, but have found his papers all right and no charge to be brought against him. Your mother, poor soul, hath little time to mope or to pipe her eye, for she hath such a sense of duty that, were the ship to founder under her, it is a plate galleon to a china orange that she would stand fast in the caboose curing marigolds or rolling pastry. They have taken to prayer as some would to rum, and warm their hearts with it when the wind of misfortune blows chill. They were right glad that I should come down to you, and I gave them the word of a sailor that I would get you out of the bilboes if it might anyhow be done.'
'Get me out, Solomon!' said I; 'nay, that may be put outside the question. How could you get me out?'
'There are many ways,' he answered, sinking his voice to a whisper, and nodding his grizzled head as one who talks upon what has cost him much time and thought. 'There is scuttling.'
'Aye, lad! When I was quartermaster of the galley Providence in the second Dutch war, we were caught betwixt a lee shore and Van Tromp's squadron, so that after fighting until our sticks were shot away and our scuppers were arun with blood, we were carried by boarding and sent as prisoners to the Texel. We were stowed away in irons in the afterhold, amongst the bilge water and the rats, with hatches battened down and guards atop, but even then they could not keep us, for the irons got adrift, and Will Adams, the carpenter's mate, picked a hole in the seams so that the vessel nearly foundered, and in the confusion we fell upon the prize crew, and, using our fetters as cudgels, regained possession of the vessel. But you smile, as though there were little hopes from any such plan!'
'If this wool-house were the galley Providence and Taunton Deane were the Bay of Biscay, it might be attempted,' I said.
'I have indeed got out o' the channel,' he answered, with a wrinkled brow. 'There is, however, another most excellent plan which I have conceived, which is to blow up the building.'
'To blow it up!' I cried.
'Aye! A brace of kegs and a slow match would do it any dark night. Then where would be these walls which now shut ye in?'
'Where would be the folk that are now inside them!' I asked. 'Would you not blow them up as well?'
'Plague take it, I had forgot that,' cried Solomon. 'Nay, then, I leave it with you. What have you to propose? Do but give your sailing orders, and, with or without a consort, you will find that I will steer by them as long as this old hulk can answer to her helm.'
'Then my advice is, my dear old friend,' said I, 'that you leave matters to take their course, and hie back to Havant with a message from me to those who know me, telling them to be of good cheer, and to hope for the best. Neither you nor any other man can help me now, for I have thrown in my lot with these poor folk, and I would not leave them if I could. Do what you can to cheer my mother's heart, and commend me to Zachary Palmer. Your visit hath been a joy to me, and your return will be the same to them. You can serve me better so than by biding here.'
'Sink me if I like going back without a blow struck,' he growled. 'Yet if it is your will there is an end of the matter. Tell me, lad. Has that lank-sparred, slab-sided, herring-gutted friend of yours played you false? for if he has, by the eternal, old as I am, my hanger shall scrape acquaintance with the longshore tuck which hangs at his girdle. I know where he hath laid himself up, moored stem and stern, all snug and shipshape, waiting for the turn of the tide.'
'What, Saxon!' I cried. 'Do you indeed know where he is? For God's sake speak low, for it would mean a commission and five hundred good pounds to any one of these soldiers could he lay hands upon him.'
'They are scarce like to do that,' said Solomon. 'On my journey hither I chanced to put into port at a place called Bruton, where there is an inn that will compare with most, and the skipper is a wench with a glib tongue and a merry eye. I was drinking a glass of spiced ale, as is my custom about six bells of the middle watch, when I chanced to notice a great lanky carter, who was loading up a waggon in the yard with a cargo o' beer casks. Looking closer it seemed to me that the man's nose, like the beak of a goshawk, and his glinting eyes with the lids only half-reefed, were known to me, but when I overheard him swearing to himself in good High Dutch, then his figurehead came back to me in a moment. I put out into the yard, and touched him on the shoulder. Zounds, lad! you should have seen him spring back and spit at me like a wildcat with every hair of his head in a bristle. He whipped a knife from under his smock, for he thought, doubtless, that I was about to earn the reward by handing him over to the red-coats. I told him that his secret was safe with me, and I asked him if he had heard that you were laid by the heels. He answered that he knew it, and that he would be answerable that no harm befell you, though in truth it seemed to me that he had his hands full in trimming his own sails, without acting as pilot to another. However, there I left him, and there I shall find him again if so be as he has done you an injury.'
'Nay,' I answered, 'I am right glad that he has found this refuge. We did separate upon a difference of opinion, but I have no cause to complain of him. In many ways he hath shown me both kindness and goodwill.'
'He is as crafty as a purser's clerk,' quoth Solomon. 'I have seen Reuben Lockarby, who sends his love to you. He is still kept in his bunk from his wound, but he meets with good treatment. Major Ogilvy tells me that he has made such interest for him that there is every chance that he will gain his discharge, the more particularly since he was not present at the battle. Your own chance of pardon would, he thinks, be greater if you had fought less stoutly, but you have marked yourself as a dangerous man, more especially as you have the love of many of the common folk among the rebels.'
The good old seaman stayed with me until late in the night, listening to my adventures, and narrating in return the simple gossip of the village, which is of more interest to the absent wanderer than the rise and fall of empires. Before he left he drew a great handful of silver pieces from his pouch, and went round amongst the prisoners, listening to their wants, and doing what he could with rough sailor talk and dropping coins to lighten their troubles. There is a language in the kindly eye and the honest brow which all men may understand; and though the seaman's speeches might have been in Greek, for all that they conveyed to the Somersetshire peasants, yet they crowded round him as he departed and called blessings upon his head. I felt as though he had brought a whiff of his own pure ocean breezes into our close and noisome prison, and left us the sweeter and the healthier.
Late in August the judges started from London upon that wicked journey which blighted the lives and the homes of so many, and hath left a memory in the counties through which they passed which shall never fade while a father can speak to a son. We heard reports of them from day to day, for the guards took pleasure in detailing them with many coarse and foul jests, that we might know what was in store for us, and lose none of what they called the pleasures of anticipation. At Winchester the sainted and honoured Lady Alice Lisle was sentenced by Chief Justice Jeffreys to be burned alive, and the exertions and prayers of her friends could scarce prevail upon him to allow her the small boon of the axe instead of the faggot. Her graceful head was hewn from her body amidst the groans and the cries of a weeping multitude in the market-place of the town. At Dorchester the slaughter was wholesale. Three hundred were condemned to death, and seventy-four were actually executed, until the most loyal and Tory of the country squires had to complain of the universal presence of the dangling bodies. Thence the judges proceeded to Exeter and thence to Taunton, which they reached in the first week of September, more like furious and ravenous beasts which have tasted blood and cannot quench their cravings for slaughter, than just-minded men, trained to distinguish the various degrees of guilt, or to pick out the innocent and screen him from injustice. A rare field was open for their cruelty, for in Taunton alone there lay a thousand hapless prisoners, many of whom were so little trained to express their thoughts, and so hampered by the strange dialect in which they spoke, that they might have been born dumb for all the chance they had of making either judge or counsel understand the pleadings which they wished to lay before them.
It was on a Monday evening that the Lord Chief Justice made his entry. From one of the windows of the room in which we were confined I saw him pass. First rode the dragoons with their standards and kettledrums, then the javelin-men with their halberds, and behind them the line of coaches full of the high dignitaries of the law. Last of all, drawn by six long-tailed Flemish mares, came a great open coach, thickly crusted with gold, in which, reclining amidst velvet cushions, sat the infamous Judge, wrapped in a cloak of crimson plush with a heavy white periwig upon his head, which was so long that it dropped down over his shoulders. They say that he wore scarlet in order to strike terror into the hearts of the people, and that his courts were for the same reason draped in the colour of blood. As for himself, it hath ever been the custom, since his wickedness hath come to be known to all men, to picture him as a man whose expression and features were as monstrous and as hideous as was the mind behind them. This is by no means the case. On the contrary, he was a man who, in his younger days, must have been remarkable for his extreme beauty.(1) He was not, it is true, very old, as years go, when I saw him, but debauchery and low living had left their traces upon his countenance, without, however entirely destroying the regularity and the beauty of his features. He was dark, more like a Spaniard than an Englishman, with black eyes and olive complexion. His expression was lofty and noble, but his temper was so easily aflame that the slightest cross or annoyance would set him raving like a madman, with blazing eyes and foaming mouth. I have seen him myself with the froth upon his lips and his whole face twitching with passion, like one who hath the falling sickness. Yet his other emotions were under as little control, for I have heard say that a very little would cause him to sob and to weep, more especially when he had himself been slighted by those who were above him. He was, I believe, a man who had great powers either for good or for evil, but by pandering to the darker side of his nature and neglecting the other, he brought himself to be as near a fiend as it is possible for a man to be. It must indeed have been an evil government where so vile and foul-mouthed a wretch was chosen out to hold the scales of justice. As he drove past, a Tory gentleman riding by the side of his coach drew his attention to the faces of the prisoners looking out at him. He glanced up at them with a quick, malicious gleam of his white teeth, then settled down again amongst the cushions. I observed that as he passed not a hat was raised among the crowd, and that even the rude soldiers appeared to look upon him half in terror, half in disgust, as a lion might look upon some foul, blood-sucking bat which battened upon the prey which he had himself struck down.